Author's note: This is what happens when we're on the phone and one of us says..."What if....?"
Lou barely looked up as the door to the bunkhouse swung open and the other riders spilled into the room. "You don't really hear me, do ya, Kid?"
He sat back in his chair and gave her a hard look. "How can you say that, Lou? I'm always worried about you."
She pointed an accusatory finger at him. "That’s what I mean! I want you to listen to the words that are coming out of my mouth, Kid." She took a breath and spoke clearly even in the crowded room. "No one is takin’ my run… but me!"
"It’s not about you bein’ a girl, Lou."
"I don’t think she sees it your way, Kid."
Jimmy earned a scathing look for his interruption. "Two riders have been robbed this week alone. Look at it as a way to keep the Express, well… running." Kid gave Lou a quick once over and knew he hadn’t made any progress.
Realizing that he’d come to an impasse in his argument, Lou went on the offensive. "I can ride as well as any of you." Ike and Jimmy nodded, agreeing with her. "I can shoot as well as any of you." Cody shrugged, but grudgingly nodded his head when Buck elbowed him in the side. Feeling victory within her grasp she went on. "Heck, I bet I could drink as much -"
Cody snorted and spit water on Ike’s shirt. "Sorry Lou, but I can’t see that happenin’."
Whatever she expected them to do… or say… she realized they were now all staring at her as if she’d grown a third eye in the middle of her forehead. "Well," she insisted, "I can."
As the boys exchanged looks, they all broke out in laughter.
"You had me right up to that last part, Lou." Jimmy stretched his legs out in front of him. "I really don’t think this is somethin’ you wanna press." He tried to hide his smile, but ended up wiping away a tear as his shoulders began to shake.
If the boys had the good sense to remember who it was they were dealing with they didn’t show it. Lou wasn’t a woman to back down just because some said she ‘couldn’t’ do something. "Fine." She stood up so fast her chair fell over backward and hit the floor. "I’ll prove it."
The boys stared at her as she marched to the door.
"Where are you going, Lou?" Buck’s voice was soft but carried across the room.
"We are going to town… the saloon."
Kid stood up and shook his head. "Now you wait a minute, Lou-"
"Remember how this started, Kid," Jimmy warned.
"If any of you is yella… than feel free to stay behind, but if any of you is ‘man’ enough to take me on… let’s get to ridin’ before it gets dark." She disappeared out the door, leaving them all staring at her back.
Yella… the word hung in the air.
"Yeah, I think we should just follow and set her straight," Cody added.
"Set her straight?" Jimmy scoffed, "I’m gonna win this one easy." He looked over at Buck and gave him a smile. "She can’t drink more than a few glasses of wine before she gets tipsy."
"Wine?" Kid looked over at Jimmy with a million questions in his expression. "When did she have wine?"
Ike quickly stood and nodded to Buck. *lets go*
Buck grabbed Jimmy’s arm and pushed him toward the door. Cody followed right behind them.
"Jimmy?" Kid called out the door as he took his coat from its hook. "When did she have wine?"
"Kid," Buck yelled over his shoulder, "now ain’t the time to worry about that." He kept a tight hold on Jimmy’s arm.
"Now Buck, if Kid wants-"
"Yeah, I want!" Kid called out running to catch up to Jimmy, as he climbed up on his horse.
Jimmy paused as he settled his saddle on Sundance’s back. "Well, Kid, it was-"
"Get up on your horse," Buck snapped at Kid, watching Lou’s back retreating into the twilight.
"Wait up, Lou," Cody said, climbing onto Soda and kicking the horse into action as the others followed.
Kid continued to mumble something about Lou and wine.
One of the girls met them at the door. "A round of drinks?"
The boys nodded, but Lou pushed her way to the front. "Yep," she grinned, "I’m buyin’." Giving the waitress a conspiratorial look, she said, "Natty, you know we’re not gonna cause you any trouble, but the boys here think I can’t hold my liquor long enough to drink ‘em under the table."
While the boys lagged behind, their gazes drifting back at the petite and curvy girl, Lou walked through the half empty saloon and pulled out a chair at a table big enough for all of them.
Ike took the seat to her left, Cody on her other side. That left Jimmy and Kid to fill in the middle while Buck hesitated.
"What’s the matter, Buck?" Jimmy heaped on the sarcasm. "Don’t tell me you’re worried about Lou beatin’ us?"
Buck’s expression showed how much contempt he had for the statement. "I have the early ride in the morning, I need to have a clear head."
"Fair enough. Besides," Lou nodded, "I’ll need a witness when I win. So’s you boys can’t come back and say you can’t remember the view of the underside of the table." She narrowed her gaze on the blond rider. "Come to think of it, Cody, you have the one right after him, you wanna perhaps…" she smiled slyly, "quit?"
"Quit?" Cody looked around the room to see if anyone had heard the blasphemous charge. "Hell no, it’ll take more than a few beers to scare me off."
The first bottle hit the table and Ike’s eyes went wide. *whiskey*
Lou smiled at his shocked expression. "That’s right, whiskey." Leaning back in her chair, she addressed the table. "Beer just whets your whistle, a real man drinks whiskey."
Cody leaned on the edge of the table, eyes set on Lou. "Fine. Whiskey."
The waitress deposited the last bottle on the table and opened her hand. Lou reached into her pocket and pulled out a half eagle, and, as Natty leaned down, Lou dropped it into her palm. "Thanks, Mister."
Lou picked up the nearly clean tumblers and handed them out around the table, sliding two out to Kid and Jimmy on the other side. "Well," she said as she uncorked the bottle and poured the glass half full, "Let’s get to it."
Wiping the trail dust from his eyes, Sam slid down out of the saddle. He tossed his reins over the hitching post and stretched his legs as he walked up to the marshal’s office. The interior was dark, barely lit by a single lantern at the desk. Sam didn’t have to ask who was on duty that night; the faint scent of chicory-flavored coffee assailed his nose. "Barnett? You awake?"
The shadowy figure at the desk jumped up and what seemed to be the better part of a deck of cards landed in a pile at his feet. "No, Sam, I ain’t sleepin’… just noddin’ off a bit." He stepped forward to greet his old friend. "’Sides, the town’s pretty quiet tonight, ‘cept for that game of sport over at the saloon."
"Never mind about that. I’m just in town for the night and I’m lookin’ for Emma’s boys. I stopped into the station and Mrs. Dunne said they rode out after supper. You seen them around?"
"As I was sayin’…" Barnett waited to be sure that he had Sam’s undivided attention, "over at the saloon…"
Sam swept off his hat, knocking it against his thigh a few times. "Barnett, I’m more than happy to help out if you’ve got trouble brewin’ over at the saloon, if you’ll just tell me where I can find the boys… besides, they’re pretty handy in a fight." He chuckled.
Barnett grinned. "That’s what I’ve been tryin’ to tell ya, Sam… the boys are over at the saloon and the way they’ve been drinkin’ they’re more likely to start a fight than end it."
Now, he had Sam’s full attention.
Jimmy picked up his bottle and blew air over the mouth. Cody had to slap his hand over his mouth to hide the girlish giggle that bubbled up at the low warbly sound.
"Too bad you didn't think of that earlier Jimmy, we could'a made some purty music before we drank so much."
"What a find idea, Cody," Lou held up a hand and suddenly Natty was back at her side. "I can order a few more bottles."
"Whatever," muttered Kid, leaning his arm on the table, "I’m still waitin’ to hear about the wine thing."
"Oh," Jimmy waggled a finger at his sullen expression, "don’t you go whinin’, Kid. It ain’t fittin’ when I’m more than happy to-"
Ike smacked his tumbler on the table to get everyone’s attention. *drink*
Buck shifted to scratch an itch on the post he was leaning against, his dark eyes watching the idiotic scene before him. The boys were swaying in their seats, mouths curved in silly grins and their voices raised as though everyone around them was hard of hearing.
"I’m still waitin’… and ain’t no one," Kid pointed an unsteady finger that wavered from one side of Jimmy’s head to the other, " gonna get me to forget that I… that I…" Puzzled, he looked over at Cody. Then Lou. His eyes lit up. "Right! The wine." He looked at Jimmy. "Tell me about the wine."
Lou slapped her whiskey bottle on the table. "If you want to know about it, then why don’t you ask me. ME!"
Kid narrowed his gaze at her across the table. "Jimmy brought it up… he’s gonna tell it."
Buck swallowed hard and let out a breath. If he was quiet… if he didn’t make a big deal about it…
He took a step or two toward the door and suddenly found himself face to face with the serving girl that Lou called Natty. The young woman stared him down with her arms firmly folded over her chest.
When he backed up to the post, she smiled and touched Lou’s shoulder as she walked away.
"Right." Jimmy nodded. "I’ll tell it, ‘cause I was there." He downed his fresh pour of whiskey and gave Kid a wide grin. "I took her out to dinner just about the time I guess you and little miss ‘britches’ was takin’ a turn on a dance floor."
"Don’t you make this about me," Kid paused and leaned in closer. "Who?"
"Miss sweetness and light," Jimmy bit out the words and gave Kid a wolfish snarl.
"I think," Cody slurred, "he’s talkin’ about that girl, Samantha."
"That’s right," Jimmy nodded and sat back in his chair.
Cody gave Jimmy a thumbs-up and smiled. "Got your back, buddy."
"Lou and I had that ride out to Willow Springs and I had me a plan to get her mind off them idi..iji...idil...stupid things you said, so Lou and me… we got her a purty little dress and found a purty little re-rest-resh- dinner place and we had us a bottle of wine."
Lou stared down into her tumbler and sighed.
Buck watched her carefully out of the corner of his eye. She was quiet, but not the kind of quiet like Old Man Murphy sleeping it off in the jail every Saturday night. Looking around the table he could see obvious signs that the others were well on their way to a nasty headache come morning. Their glassy eyes and wavering smiles, but Lou showed none of the usual signs.
"What’s Samantha got to do with this?"
Jimmy waved off Kid’s question. "Nothin’ ‘cept she’s just another excuse for you to treat Lou like a passing fancy."
Cody stared. "Ohhhhhh, that’s mean of ya, Kid."
Kid barked back. "Stay outta this, Cody."
The blond rider looked shocked. "But, Kid… I think you’re great."
Ike fumbled with his hands a bit as he tried to communicate with Cody. Seeing the strange tilt of Cody’s head, reminding Buck of the dog that hung around the station, Buck added in with more than a little laughter in his voice, "He said, ‘he’s got your back.’"
Cody chuckled and pointed back over his shoulder. "I’ve got yours too, Ike. You’re my friend."
Buck rolled his eyes, but no one paid any attention except for Natty across the room, her own shoulders shaking with laughter.
"So what’s this about a dress?" Kid wasn’t going to let this go. "She bought a dress? I thought this was an Express ride, not a party." Kid gave Lou a sour look.
"Don’t get your knickers in a knot, Kid." Jimmy spat, drawing the attention back to him, "I bought her the ‘damn’ dress. It was high time someone treated her like the woman she is and she looked damn good in it. Every man that saw her on the street thought so too." Jimmy gave Lou a soft and silly smile. "I said it then and I still mean it now, I was the luckiest man there."
"Damnit, Jimmy!" Kid lunged and managed to get enough of a grip on Jimmy’s coat to pull him out of his chair. Problem was, it was also enough to pull Kid out of his seat and onto the floor.
"Well now," Sam Cain reached down and got a handful of their collars and separated them. "This isn’t what I expected to find. Not at all."
"Well, howdy Sam!" Cody waved from his seat. "Great to see you. You’re our friend."
"Friend enough to make sure you boys don't end up in neighboring cells. What is going on here?"
"We’re havin’ ourselves a little contest."
"Really, now?" Sam took an empty chair from another table and set it down near Jimmy. "How do you know who wins?"
Ike leaned out of his chair valiantly signing a message to Sam, forgetting that Sam had never quite grasped the nuances of his language. After the first questioning look, he tried harder to enunciate the different words and managed to slide off the end of his chair.
Cody pointed at Ike across the table and told Sam. "He just lost."
Sam looked at the assembled group. "If Teaspoon was around, I doubt this little party would’a gone this far, so I’m gonna end this before you boys become drunk and disorderly."
"Drunk and disorderly? I think they’d have to be able to get up to be disorderly." The bartender turned away at Sam’s hard glare, he didn’t bother to hide his grin. This was a treat.
"Yeah, we can be drunk on the floor." Jimmy nudged Kid with his elbow and chuckled as Kid pushed back.
Kid reached up, grasped the edge of the table and pulled himself up. He managed to get high enough to peer over at Lou. "What else did you do?"
She filled another tumbler and drank it down without pause. When it was empty, she cupped it in her hands and smiled across the table at him. "We danced."
Kid’s face went pale in less than a second and a hush descended on the table. Sam was the only one out of the loop. "Hope he didn’t step on your toes."
Kid refused to look at Jimmy. "Well he just stepped on mine."
Lou squared her shoulders. "It’s always about you Kid, isn’t it? This isn’t fun anymore." She picked up the bottle, drank the rest of the whiskey down and slammed it on the table. The sudden impact of the bottle knocked Kid back onto the floor.
"Oh..," Cody said, "did that hurt? It looked like it did." He turned to Sam. "I think it hurt."
Lou left the saloon without a backward glance and Buck shared a worried glance with Natty.
Sam cleared his throat and gave a low whistle. "Well, I think it’s high time you boys saddled up and headed home."
"I don’t think they’ll make it that far."
Sam lifted Lou’s tumbler and drank the few drops that clung to the glass and set it down, picking up Jimmy’s bottle Sam sniffed at it and instantly agreed with Buck’s observation. "Think we can get them as far as the jail?"
"You arrestin’ us, Sam?" Jimmy leaned his head against the edge of the table to look up at the marshal. "We ain’t done nothin’ but talk ourselves into trouble."
"That’s enough, if you ask me."
Cody stood with the help of the table. "Well," he beamed, "I guess that makes me the winner!" He took a step away from the table and collapsed on rubber legs. "Maybe not."
There weren’t enough cots in the jail to hold them all, but Cody solved the problem by collapsing on the hay strewn floor. Sam had his hands full settling Ike and Kid into one cell and Buck unceremoniously plopped Jimmy on the free cot in the other cell.
Sam stepped out into the cramped hall and surveyed the damage. "Well, I ain’t gonna lock the doors. Don’t make me regret it."
"No worries about us, Sam!" Cody’s voice rose from the floor. "We just need some sleep."
Kid rolled onto his back. "I still don’t get where the wine comes into this little ‘trip’."
Ike raised a hand and tried to answer but the darkness and his drunken haze made it impossible for Kid to get the message. Buck took over for his friend. "They had some wine at dinner. It wasn’t anything more than friends."
"Yup," added Cody, "there weren’t nothin’ underhanded ‘bout it. Lou’s my friend too!"
Turning to look at the others, Kid lifted his head off the cot with some effort. "You all knew?" He kicked his boot off into the darkness. "I bet Lou told you to keep quiet ‘bout this."
Buck looked through the bars separating the cells and met Kid’s eyes. "We were the ones that didn’t want to tell you."
"And why not?"
Sam shoved his hat back on his head and scratched at his hairline. "I’d say you just answered your own question, son." Sam clapped a hand on Buck’s shoulder and headed for the front of the office to wake Barnett from his nap, but Buck followed slowly behind him.
"Why did you drink Lou’s whiskey?"
The older man gave Buck a smile over his shoulder. "Son, when you get to be my age you’ve seen a lot. The bartender’s keep a bottle filled with tea in case someone buys him or one of the girls a drink. It ain’t hospitable to refuse and he can’t have the workers get drunk… looks like Natty gave Lou that bottle. "
"You think they know each other?"
Sam shrugged. "Maybe."
Ike’s soft snores soon filled the air and Jimmy pulled the rough woolen blanket up to his chin and felt a draft on his stockinged feet. "Got anything else to say, Kid?"
Cody piped up from the floor. "I do if he don’t." Cody didn’t wait for an answer. "I love you. All of you. You’re my friends!"
"Really?" an old, craggy voice said from the other side of Jimmy’s cell, "I’m real happy to hear that."
In the darkness, Cody squinted to see who it was. "Old Man Murphy?"